Real to Reel
A family legacy of recording history, and making it, helped produce the brilliant career of celebrated documentary filmmaker Peter Kunhardt.
Photo by George Kunhardt
Six Emmy Awards crowd a small shelf in a corner of Peter Kunhardt’s modest loft/office space in Pleasantville, home to his company, Kunhardt Films. The impressive statuettes, even though slightly tucked away, silently express just how good Kunhardt is at what he does.
The self-effacing newsman-turned-documentary filmmaker might hesitate to proclaim this out loud, but he and his team produce and direct some of the most socially relevant and critically acclaimed documentaries made today, including their latest releases, King in the Wilderness and John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls. The latter is especially poignant in light of the Arizona senator’s recent death.
Kunhardt, partnering with sons Teddy and George, spent many hours with McCain — both in DC and at his Arizona ranch — shooting and producing the documentary on an accelerated schedule, beginning last year. The filmmakers, as well as their subject, knew that time to tell this important American’s story was running out. The result is an intimate, invaluable portrait of a complicated man examining his life against the backdrop of a fatal diagnosis.
Teddy Kunhardt, Senator John McCain, George Kunhardt, and Peter Kunhardt in 2017. Photo by Claire Popkin
While both films were screened this year at Pleasantville’s Jacob Burns Film Center, Kunhardt projects are currently produced in conjunction with HBO, which means they are widely available on the cable channel’s streaming services. But be forewarned — the movies pack an emotional and sometimes devastating, punch. The overall takeaway, however, is one of inspiration, and that is not an accident.
“We try to make moral leadership the core of many of the films we do,” explains Kunhardt. “What we are really after is the kernel of character who is universal, whom people can identify with, which is the driving force within someone.”
For example, King in the Wilderness looks at Martin Luther King’s final year, inundating the audience with arresting images and new insights supplied by King’s contemporaries. Jim: The James Foley Story, which focuses on the American journalist captured and brutally murdered by members of ISIS, includes haunting, never-before-shared testimony from his fellow prisoners that reveal moments of unthinkable fear and courage. In Becoming Warren Buffet, the idiosyncratic billionaire discusses the private pain that led to his unprecedented philanthropy. Kunhardt’s subjects also include John F. Kennedy, Ben Bradlee, Gloria Steinem, and civil-rights attorney Bryan Stevenson. If you think you know these stories, think again. The broad strokes might be common knowledge, but it’s the painstaking detail and fresh imagery — both the result of exhaustive research — that make Kunhardt films truly revelatory.
Peter Kunhardt and Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway in 2016. Photo by Claire Popkin
Not surprisingly, Kunhardt, a longtime resident of Chappaqua, also credits his quest for truth and understanding to his own remarkable family. Kunhardt’s great-grandfather was the historian Frederick Hill Meserve, whose father served as a major in the Union Army. Meserve suggested his father publish his war diaries and set about gathering pictures to illustrate the volume, ultimately amassing a huge collection of photos of President Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. The job of maintaining these images was passed on to following generations, becoming known to the family as a “glorious burden” for a variety of reasons.
This endeavor is the subject of Kunhardt’s film Living with Lincoln, which focuses on Kunhardt’s grandmother, Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt, who struggled not only with a profound sense of obligation to her family legacy but also with profound depression. Dorothy is best known, however, as author of the classic children’s book Pat the Bunny, which “helped put us all through college,” says Kunhardt with a wry smile. In the film, we are introduced to her children, notably Kunhardt’s father, Philip. He appears as a smiling, benevolent figure, who took up the family mantle of historical research and archival materials with renewed vigor. Rather than engage in spoiler alerts at this point, suffice it to say that the Lincoln archives become a matter of life and death.
Kunhardt’s family clearly means the world to him, and he has happily furthered a longstanding tradition of bonding with his clan both personally and professionally. This legacy of abiding familial attachment seems to stem directly from Dorothy, who for decades carried with her a near-paralyzing fear of abandoment, working tirelessly throughout her life to cement the approval of her beloved father.
“We have a unique family. It’s amazing how well the three of us work together, also that Dad used to work with our uncle and grandfather.”
After 10 years with ABC News, Kunhardt founded Kunhardt Films in 1987, bringing in his father, formerly managing editor of LIFE magazine, and brother, Philip Kunhardt III. Spending time with Kunhardt and his filmmaker sons, both in their early 30s, one quickly detects the strong affection and respect that bonds the trio. In addition to Teddy and George, Kunhardt has two other children with whom he is close. Eldest son Peter Jr. works in the office below Kunhardt Films, as executive director of the Gordon Parks Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving and promoting the work of the famed African-American photojournalist. Daughter Abby, who lives in Florida, visits regularly.
The Kunhardts tend to live proximally by choice, which seems charmingly old-fashioned by modern-day standards. Kunhardt and his wife, Suzy, bought a home years ago in Chappaqua, near the home of his now-deceased parents, who eventually moved into a second house that Kunhardt built on his property (where Teddy currently resides with his wife). George lives in Bedford, with his wife and infant son, George Jr.
“We have a unique family. It’s amazing how well the three of us work together, also that Dad used to work with our uncle and grandfather,” explains George, who is known as the team peacemaker. “There is some bickering,” adds Teddy, but all three admit that whenever a serious disagreement arises, Peter gets final say, though he claims to “rarely” use his veto power. In fact, he is quick to credit his sons for the youthful energy and technical savvy they bring to the table. The two have enhanced the production value of the company’s films by shooting gorgeous B-roll footage, adding “smarter” graphics, and hiring young talent.
Peter Kunhardt is fine with all of it, as the changes allow him to do what he does best. “Peter’s strengths are research and storytelling, and no one works harder than he does,” says George. “He can get to the core better than anyone.” The young men’s input “has allowed me to work at my own pace and to stop micromanaging, which ultimately gets in the way of good production,” Peter adds.
Clockwise from top: George Kunhardt, Vice President Joe Biden, and Teddy Kunhardt at Biden’s Wilmington, DE, home in 2017. Photo by Claire Popkin
Together, the Kunhardts produce work that largely celebrates what’s best in humanity, without shying away from the negative. These darker sides are never sensationalized or exploited, however. “The ‘gotcha’ questions — we haven’t done that,” Peter explains. “We think character deficiencies are part of an overall story that have to be kept in their proper perspective.” The John McCain documentary, for instance, unflinchingly examines his divorce and major political missteps. But McCain’s own reaction to the film (Teddy flew out to Arizona to screen it privately for the senator) is quite telling. “You nailed it, kid,” McCain told Teddy, who recounts this interaction with a slight catch in throat.
Peter’s graceful skill at capturing the character deficiencies of others makes one wonder if the filmmaker has any of his own worth documenting. A minor technophobe, Peter has a slight penchant for watching reality television and has been known to let his grandchildren distract him from work, his sons report. Not exactly tabloid fodder. Still energized by the prospect of a long career ahead — plans include moving into the nonprofit arena to focus on issues of social justice — Peter does take time off to garden, practice yoga weekly at Katonah Yoga, and travel to Maine. He has also started working with personal trainer Katie Simco, at Saw Mill Club East in Mount Kisco, to ensure that he can “keep picking up his grandchildren,” whom he says bring him unparalleled joy.
It’s not surprising that a man who’s dedicated himself to seeking out the best in other people is in no short supply of virtue himself. George tells of the story of an associate who asked to sit in on a meeting unrelated to the film he was actually working on, just because “he wanted to be in the room with Peter.” Upon hearing this anecdote, Kunhardt remarked with signature humility that said man soon learned “it was no great experience.” But after personally being in a room with Peter Kunhardt, listening to him speak eloquently about film, truth, character, and family, it is a great experience indeed.
Gale Ritterhoff is a frequent contributor to Westchester Magazine.